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Prospect Retrospective: Justin Verlander

"When he was 9 years old, we were throwing rocks into a pond. I picked up one and threw it as far as I could, which was about halfway across. Justin picked up a rock, and he threw it all the way across to the other side." -Richard Verlander

In order to help us learn about future prospects, it is often helpful to look at the past. Today we'll take a look at Tigers ace Justin Verlander and his development path in the minor leagues. Verlander is an interesting guy to examine for a few reasons. First, he was an undisputed success, and proof that while there is risk with prospects, the reward can be very sweet. Second, he was a very gifted arm that was expected to move slowly, yet somehow managed to get to Detroit in less than a year (and managed to get there permanently in less than two). Third, he was a "rushed" prospect that succeeded. There's a lot of debate over how the Tigers promote players, and Verlander is a solid case in favor of moving players quickly.

Verlander was drafted second overall in 2004 from Old Dominion. He set the Old Dominion single-season strikeout record in 2003 with 139 before breaking it in 2004 with a whopping 151 strikeouts in 11 fewer innings. He did it with an upper 90s fastball and a power curveball. He also had a feel for a changeup that projected as a plus pitch. His command was iffy, however, and Baseball America noted that his delivery needed work. Specifically, Verlander was over-extending his stride and opening his front side.

The Tigers still saw enough to draft him second overall and then signed him to a $5.6 million dollar major league contract, with a $3.12 million dollar bonus. Unfortunately, he signed too late to play that year. Baseball America rated Verlander as the third-best Tigers prospect in the 2004-2005 offseason, and John Sickels ranked him as the best player in the farm system.

Verlander started 2005 in High A Lakeland, The Tigers were primarily focused on fixing Verlander's delivery in order to solve his command problems. The result was a 1.67 ERA with 104 strikeouts to 19 walks in 86 innings pitched. The Tigers moved him up to Double-A Erie in June, and he did very well before being called up to Detroit for a spot start. As of July 4, Billfer even called him "Detroit's sixth starter" at the Detroit Tigers Weblog. John Sickels also noted his drastically improved command, writing that he was "second only to [Felix Hernandez] among RHP prospects. Verlander finished out the season in Erie with an ERA of 0.28 in 32 innings (no, that is not a typo) with 32 strikeouts and only seven walks. Near the end of the year, he was shut down due to complaints of a tired arm.

Verlander went into the offseason ranked as the best Tigers prospect by both Sickels and Baseball America. BA ranked him the third best prospect in baseball, noting that he had both the best fastball and best curveball in the organization and that his changeup had developed very quickly. We all know what happened after that.

Verlander closed out 2006 as the AL Rookie of the Year, and his ERA was very good (at 3.63). Yet he only struck out 6 batters per 9 innings (only 124 strikeouts total) and his FIP was 4.35. The walk rate was okay- about 3 per 9 innings, but Verlander had some development to do. His 2007 was a marked improvement over 2006. The strikeouts rose to 8.17 per 9 and while his BB/9 stayed around 3, his FIP dropped to 3.99, which was a much narrower gap compared to his ERA-FIP splits in 2006. 2008 was a rougher season for Verlander since his strikeout rate dropped to 7.30 per 9 and his walk rate rose to 3.90 per 9. But his 4.18 FIP still wasn't horrible, and Verlander followed a poor 2008 season with his dominant 2009.

So what can we learn from Verlander's case specifically? First, an impact prospect is called that for a reason- they can really have an impact. That's important to keep in mind when people discuss flipping a top pitching prospect (like Jacob Turner) for players at the deadline or in the off-season. Second, sometimes players that are seen as projects can be fixed pretty easily. That isn't to say that players with funky deliveries or weird mechanics can be fixed easily, but it is a nice little ray of hope.

That leaves us with one giant question, though, and it's one that is really tough to answer. What can Justin Verlander's development tell us about Detroit's tendencies to move cornerstone, ace-caliber, franchise pitchers through the farm system? It would be easy to conclude that Verlander's successful development is the cause of the quick paced development of players like Andrew Miller and Rick Porcello. I've done that before- originally that was designed to be the conclusion of this piece. But the Tigers have rushed pitchers before (Jeremy Bonderman comes to mind) and they'll probably rush pitchers after the failure of Andrew Miller. It's easy to blame Jim Leyland for wanting power arms in Detroit quickly, and it's certainly possible that the "rush franchise pitchers" mentality comes from Dave Dombrowski. But, frankly, Justin Verlander's path through the minors is not enough to determine anything about organizational philosophies. It does, however make a very good question to be answered at a later date.

In the end, Tigers fans should be very happy with their young (still 27-year-old) ace. And while his development leaves some pretty big questions, Tigers fans should enjoy him while he lasts. Pitchers like this don't come along every day.